In the early nineteenth century, an obscure rural policeman petitioned the French government with an unusual story. Charles Fanaye had served with Napoleon's armies in Egypt. Chased by Mameluks, he was rescued in the nick of time by a black Ethiopian woman and hidden in her home. Threatened in turn by the Mameluks, Marie-Hélène (as the woman came to be called) threw in her lot with the French army and followed Fanaye to France. The couple then sought to wed. They easily overcame religious barriers when Marie-Héléne was baptized in the Cathedral of Avignon. But another obstacle was harder to overcome: an 1803 ministerial decree banned marriage between blacks and whites. Though Fanaye and Marie-Héléne begged for an exception, the decree would plague them for the next sixteen years of their romance.
Jennifer Heuer is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst <[email protected]>. She would like to thank Alyssa Sepinwall, Sue Peabody, Rebecca Hartkopf Schloss, Anne Verjus, Brian Ogilvie, and the anonymous reviewers of Law and History Review for their suggestions and comments on earlier versions of this article.